SUDAN: Disarmament doubts in Lakes State
JUBA, 17 May 2010 (IRIN) - Southern Sudanese authorities have stepped up efforts to collect illegal weapons in Lakes State, but critics say the process is prone to abuse and has left some communities unprotected.
Photo: Allan Boswell/IRIN
|A girl rides her bike in Cueibet town: Several civilians in Lakes state have expressed fear that neighbouring communities with more arms could take advantage of the recent disarmament
“Disarmament is a good thing, but the style of doing it needs to be changed,” said Madhang Majok, commissioner for Cueibet County, said. “The soldiers [deployed to collect the arms] were very rude. Local authorities were not involved.”
The state has become a prime disarmament target after several increasingly violent traditional cattle raids.
“They caned many people,” said Mark Majong, a teaching assistant in Cueibet, describing the soldiers’ firearm collection methods. To instil fear, soldiers arrive while residents are still sleeping, one claimed. They then rounded them up and dunked their heads under water burning with red pepper sauce to force people to reveal hidden firearms, he told IRIN.
Reports of abuses prompted state authorities on 18 March to write to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) commanders. In the letter, state governor Teler Deng complained of “reports coming to my office daily alleging serious abuses by the forces under your command in the manner and method used to disarm civilians”.
Richard MacKinnon, Lakes state coordinator for the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan, UNMIS, also reported receiving regular reports of abuse at the hands of soldiers.
“UNMIS recognizes the importance of a disarmed society in order to establish conditions for peace, and encourages the SPLA to conduct such disarmament activities through coordination with Lakes state executive and local leaders,” said MacKinnon.
Several civilians in Lakes expressed fear that neighbouring communities with more arms would take advantage of the fact that their weapons had been removed. Deng pointed to one major April raid from bordering Unity state which he said resulted in more than 6,000 heads of cattle being stolen and several people killed. The raiders knew the area was being disarmed, he said.
“I have requested repeatedly for the SPLA to set up garrisons to patrol the borders between communities and neighbouring states,” the governor told IRIN. This has not happened, he said, warning that he “strongly suspects” civilians would rearm.
John Young, who has just published a report on disarmament in Jonglei State for the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said “the SPLA has never fully embraced the notion that it has a responsibility to protect the people of South Sudan.
“Who is the guilty one: those who tell us to put down our weapons or those who attack us when we are defenseless?” he quoted an exasperated official as saying.
Lack of trust
With security concerns rising as the region prepares for a referendum on possible independence in 2011, some say current tactics are exacerbating the problem.
“Lack of trust in government and neighbour alike means communities feel the need to guarantee their own security,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a December report.
Claire McEvoy, manager of Geneva-based research group Small Arms Survey’s Sudan project, said the Southern Sudan government did not have the capacity to provide security for the communities being disarmed.
“We've seen patterns in the past whereby disarmed communities end up being attacked and then rearming,” she said. “In the absence of security being provided by the government, disarmament can therefore increase insecurity and stimulate the local arms market.”
Statistics from various sources show that at least 2,500 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in 2009. Hundreds more have died this year.
In Jonglei, 1,600 people are thought to have died after the Lou Nuer resisted targeted disarmament in 2006. The bloody events of that time are still a driving factor in ongoing ethnic violence, where the 2009 death toll was most concentrated, according to the ICG.
In an interview in Juba, SPLA spokesman Colonel Malaak Ayuen acknowledged that in some areas, such as Unity, people were using the opportunity to raid unprotected cattle herds. Soldiers who carried out abuses, he added, acted outside their official roles.
“This is not supposed to be our role,” he said. “The police are supposed to do this kind of work.”
The police, who only had a meagre collection of firearms to begin with, were disarmed along with the rest of the populace, according to police and local officials. A fraction of the arms collected from them have since been returned.
Governor Deng said the move was incomprehensible. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Photo: Allan Boswell/IRIN
|UN vehicles used by military observers in Lakes state: Richard MacKinnon, Lakes state coordinator for UNMIS said the mission had received regular reports of civilian abuse at the hands of soldiers
“It was not a good thing to disarm the police,” SPLA’s Ayuen admitted.
In three months’ time, the army hopes to hand over the disarmament reins. “We want to free our forces for other things,” he said.
However, analysts doubt the police can lead disarmament in the near future. They needed to be bolstered while SPLA training and public relations needed to be improved. It was also necessary to set up a legal framework to regulate private gun ownership, to initiate reconciliation efforts between warring communities, and hold accountable those responsible for orchestrating violence.
Mackinnon said the police were “severely hampered by a lack of communications equipment and vehicle transport”.
UNMIS is not directly supporting the disarmament. Instead, it is backing the Community Security and Arms Control Bureau, which is advocating for a new policy approach that includes the non-coercive collection of arms coupled with community security initiatives.
Advisers to the bureau, which falls under the Southern government’s Ministry of Interior Affairs, say the division has no implementing powers, and its effect on policy has been minimal.
And even if security is provided, the voluntary disarmament campaign preferred by much of the region’s foreign backers might still prove ineffective.
“Firearms are one of the few assets that people have, apart from cattle,” McEvoy said. “They cost money to buy and people are extremely reluctant to give them up.”